The NFL is back, and while we are only in week 4, this season is already shaping up to be an exciting one. With things in full swing, we thought we would dive into the topic of who some of the greatest players of all time are, starting with the running backs. Here are our top 25 running backs to ever play the game.
The 25 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time
25. Tiki Barber
Known for leaving at the top of his game, Barber’s professional career spanned ten years (all of whom were spent with the New York Giants). Barber earned three Pro Bowl appearances and was awarded the Giants Ring of Honor. The running back was heavily known for his passion on the field and racked up 10,449 rushing yards in his career. Barber retired as the Giants all-time rushing and receptions leader and has served in numerous broadcasting roles post-retirement.
23. Frank Gore
This New York Jets running back was selected in the 2005 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, after a standout career at the University of Miami. To date, Gore has spent most of his playing career with the 49ers (where he played from 2005 to 2014 and became their all-time rushing leader) and has currently earned five Pro Bowl appearances. Gore has also played with the Indianapolis Colts (2015 to 2017), Miami Dolphins (2018), and Buffalo Bills (2019). As of this writing, Gore has 15,347 rushing yards and is on his way to being regarded as one of the best running backs to ever play in the NFL.
22. Shaun Alexander
This NFL running back is widely regarded as one of the all-time greats. Alexander was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2000 and went on to make three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. The running back was also named the league’s MVP in 2005 and went on to win the ‘Offensive Player of the Year’ award that same year. Alexander finished his career in 2008 with the Washington Football Team and retired with 9,453 rushing yards.
21. Terrell Davis
Nicknamed ‘T.D.,’ Terrell Davis is regarded as one of the best running backs of all-time and is considered one of the most passionate players in NFL history. Davis is known as a Denver Broncos legend, earning the “Ring of Fame” from the Broncos organization. Davis helped the team win two Super Bowl championships, and earned three straight Pro Bowl appearances from 1996 to 1998. Davis finished his career as the Denver Broncos all-time leading rusher with 7,607 rushing yards and has worked as an analyst for the NFL Network post-retirement.
18. Edgerrin James
Drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999, James secured four Pro Bowl appearances in his career. His run with the Colts landed his place as one of the best running backs in NFL history. After an incredible start, where James was named ‘Rookie of the Year,’ James went on to receive the Colts Ring of Honor for his time with the team. He then went on to play for the Arizona Cardinals, and eventually retired with the Seattle Seahawks. The running back finished his career with 12,246 rushing yards and was inducted into the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame this year.
17. Larry Csonka
Hailing from Stow, Ohio, Larry Csonka is a two-time Hall of Famer. The former Syracuse Orange was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the 1968 NFL Draft and spent the majority of his eleven seasons in Miami. Csonka won two Super Bowl titles with the Dolphins (Super Bowl VII and Super Bowl VIII), where he was named MVP for the latter. With 8,081 rushing yards and 64 rushing touchdowns, Csonka finished his career with five Pro Bowl appearances.
15. Thurman Thomas
Ranked as one of the best in NFL history with a total of 472 career receptions, Thurman Thomas was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1988. With a career that spanned thirteen seasons, Thomas spent twelve of those with the Bills. While in Buffalo, Thomas stacked up 12,074 rushing yards, and 65 rushing touchdowns. He also made five straight Pro Bowl appearances and is currently fifteenth all-time in career rushing yards. Thomas finished his career with the Miami Dolphins.
14. John Riggins
Known for his success as a player, Riggins is considered one of the best running backs in NFL history. Recognized for his finesse, Riggins made one Pro Bowl appearance as a player for the New York Jets, and also captured one Super Bowl ring. With 11,352 rushing yards, Riggins was later inducted into the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992. After his playing days were over, Riggins went on to start acting, as well as a commentating career, appearing on television and radio. The former running back’s acting credits include Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Guiding Light amongst others.
13. Tony Dorsett
With four Pro Bowl appearances, Dorsett is known for his career as a running back with the Dallas Cowboys and the Denver Broncos. In addition to being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Dorsett is also a member of the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame. Dorsett reached nearly 13,000 rushing yards in his career and has both a high school stadium (Hopewell High School) and a street (located near Heinz Field) named after him.
12. Gale Sayers
Drafted by the Chicago Bears after an impressive stint at The University of Kansas, the former Jayhawk went on to have a great but short career spanning only seven seasons due to injuries. In his career, Sayers had 4,956 rushing yards and earned four Pro Bowl appearances in seven years. Sayers was also recognized by the NFL as the rushing yards leader in 1966 and 1969, and the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s. Sayers was inducted into the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame in 1977, making him the youngest player to ever receive that award at age 34.
10. LaDainian Tomlinson
With a career spanning eleven seasons, Tomlinson is regarded as one of the best running backs ever. Tomlinson was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2001; he made five Pro Bowl appearances. The running back also earned three first-team All-Pro appearances and was named Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2006. Tomlinson finished his career with 13,684 rushing yards and officially became a Hall of Famer in 2006.
9. Marcus Allen
This class of 2003 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee is considered one of the best running backs of his era. With stints with the Los Angeles Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs, Allen is the first-ever in the history of the NFL to ever reach more than 10,000 rushing yards in his career. A Super Bowl champion (Super Bowl XVIII), with a Super Bowl MVP to match, Allen finished his career with 12,243 rushing yards and six Pro Bowl appearances.
7. Adrian Peterson
Considered to be top ten all-time, Peterson has been a key figure in the NFL over the last decade. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2007, Peterson has had a remarkable career so far. While Peterson has also played for teams such as the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, it’s his stint with the Vikings that has established him as one of the best running backs ever. With numerous accolades such as MVP, and being voted to the all-decade team for the 2010s, Peterson currently has 14,309 rushing yards to his name. Whenever Peterson does decide to hang it up, a Hall of Fame induction will follow soon after.
6. Curtis Martin
Despite his career being cut relatively short by a knee injury, Curtis Martin is still considered to be one of the best running backs in the history of the NFL. Martin spent the majority of his career with the New York Jets, also playing with the New England Patriots. In the twelve seasons he played, Martin made five Pro Bowl appearances. At the time of his injury, Martin had a total of 14,101 rushing yards. Upon his retirement, the running back was the fourth leading rusher in NFL history. Martin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
5. Marshall Faulk
A Super Bowl champion, Faulk established himself as one of the best running backs of all time. In his thirteen seasons with both the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams, Faulk made seven Pro Bowl appearances and received the MVP award in 2000. Regarded as one the Colts best players ever, Faulk was also later awarded the Colts ‘Ring of Honor.’ Faulk retired with a total of 12,279 rushing yards and has since worked as a football analyst for networks such as the NFL Network.
4. Barry Sanders
Regarded as one of the most elusive runners ever, Sanders was drafted by the Detroit Lions, where he spent his entire ten-year career. In those ten years, Sanders made ten Pro Bowl appearances and earned himself honors such as MVP (1997) and Offensive Player of the Year (1994 and 1997) during his playing days. It should be noted that many consider Sanders the greatest running back of all time, and he is also regarded as the greatest short player to ever play the game at 5’8.’ Sanders retired in 1998, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004
1. Walter Payton
To follow up Jim Brown, we had to save the man considered to be the best for last. Widely regarded as the “G.O.A.T,” Walter Payton is known for his nearly flawless thirteen-year career, where he achieved tons of records and accomplishments. To start, Payton has one Super Bowl championship, (Super Bowl XX). The running back also has nine Pro Bowl appearances and was first-team All-Pro seven times in his career. In addition to those accolades, Payton also has two NFC Offensive Player of the Year awards and was also named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1977. With all of those accomplishments (plus more) and a total of 16,726 rushing yards, it’s no wonder Payton is regarded as the greatest running back of all time.
That concludes our list of the top NFL running backs of all time. While there are definitely quite a few players who are honorable mentions, these are the ones we believed were in the top 25. With so many talented running backs impacting the game today, we are sure we will have to update this list in the future.